I work for a progressive think tank, so I'm no anti-intellectual. And despite spending my first 26 years in Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan, my last 30 have been here in Washington, so I can't claim to be part of the Heartland anymore. Even so, on certain issues I feel a lot closer to the average Tea Party voter than to many liberal Democrats. I can understand why they don't trust their national leaders, and why so many voters are flipping from party to party looking for change.
I read a lot of polls, and I know that on two issues of paramount national importance the American public at every level of income and education agrees with me and disagrees utterly with Washington's bi-partisan elite. On the questions of globalization--free trade vs. fair trade--and Social Security, Americans regardless of party, even the Tea Party (maybe especially the Tea Party), know that "free trade" and cuts in Social Security benefits, including raising the retirement age, are bad for them and bad for America.
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans believe free trade agreements with other countries have cost jobs in the United States. Just 18 percent believe they have created jobs. And on the question of whether free trade has hurt the United States overall, 65 percent of union members and 61 percent of Tea Party sympathizers agree that it has. Almost everyone--95% of managers and professionals and 83% of blue-collar workers (everyone but the Chamber of Commerce lobbyists in the Capitol)--knows something else, as well: the outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries with lower wages is the reason the U.S. economy is struggling and so few people are being hired. That's a Wall Street Journal poll, not an AFL-CIO poll.
Despite this overwhelming sentiment, one of the first things President Obama and the new Tea Party/Republican majority in the House are expected to agree on is another free trade agreement, and perhaps several of them. President Obama is heading off to Seoul to reward the Korean auto industry with tens of thousands of Midwestern, middle class auto jobs, and John Boehner will be thrilled to take up the agreement and rush it through the House at the expense of his fellow Ohioans.
After a campaign in which every politician promised to work for "Jobs, jobs, jobs," is it any wonder that Congress and the President are held in such low esteem? Who knew they meant jobs in Korea and China? The anger I share with the Tea Partiers isn't rooted in xenophobia, as Democrats like William Galston like to characterize it. It's rooted in patriotism. I'm sick of rich elites and multinationals throwing my former neighbors in Michigan and Ohio onto the scrapheap for their own gain. The Rust Bowl suffered through NAFTA and China PNTR. Haven't they suffered enough? Houses in Detroit already sell for less than a used car.
The same thing is happening with Social Security. Average Americans know you don't save Social Security by cutting its benefits--that's doublespeak on the order of "bombing the village to save it," and they know it. Big majorities oppose raising the retirement age or cutting benefits, again regardless of party affiliation. When Tea Party members carry signs telling Washington to "Keep your hands off my Social Security," they aren't expecting the people they voted for to raise the retirement age.
Likewise, when I voted for Barack Obama, I was voting for the candidate who said we didn't need to raise the retirement age, that high-income people weren't paying their fair share but if they did, we could restore solvency. How do I feel now, when the President's millionaire advisers are telling him to do just what candidate Obama opposed? How do I feel when the President appoints Alice Rivlin and Alan Simpson to his Fiscal Commission and the first thing they do is pledge to cut Social Security benefits? I'll tell you: I feel not that differently from the Tea Partiers who suspect that elites in Washington are stealing the Social Security taxes they've paid--probably to pay for government waste, fraud, and abuse. There actually is an elite conspiracy in Washington to steal the Social Security benefits that millions of Americans have worked hard for and have a right to expect, only they're going to pay for tax cuts for millionaires, to replace the estate tax, and to continue taxing capital gains at a lower rate than my secretary's income.
On the other hand, I also know something the Tea Partiers and the Independents apparently don't: that the man they just helped put in the Speaker's chair, John Boehner, wants to raise the retirement age to 70. I know that Republicans like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor detest Social Security and want to cut benefits just like Democrat Alice Rivlin, even though Republican voters (let alone Tea Partiers and Independents) don't want them to. As Rep. Cantor admits in his game plan document for the House of Representatives: "Over two-thirds of Republican voters believe the budget can be balanced without reducing spending on Social Security or Medicare." He plans to screw them anyway.
When the Tea Partiers and the Independents eventually find out what the Republican leadership is up to, they'll be as angry as I am. The big question is, what will they do with their anger? Who will they vote for in 2012?
In my dreams, I see Obama and the Democrats standing up for average Americans against the multinationals and the foreign governments that have taken advantage of American workers. I see the President refusing an unfair Free Trade Agreement that offshores more auto jobs from Michigan and Indiana. I see the President ordering the Fiscal Commission not to send him a plan to cut Social Security (which was no part of its mandate to tackle the deficit) or calls for a higher retirement age. I see Americans of every stripe saying, "The President's on my side. He's fighting the elites in Washington who want to make my life harder."
We can hope.